Portrait of a youth

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Egyptian
2nd century CE
Encaustic on wood
21 x 5.1 cm
Yale University Art Gallery: Gift of the Associates in Fine Arts 1939; 1939.263

While mummification and traditional Egyptian religious customs remained in fashion even after the Roman conquest of Egypt in 31 BCE, funerary art forms such as this painted mummy portrait began to display an increased interest in Graeco-Roman artistic traditions. Though such mummy portraits have been found throughout Egypt, most have come from the Fayum Basin in Lower Egypt, hence the moniker “Fayum Portraits.”

Many examples of this type of mummy portrait use the Greek encaustic technique, in which pigment is dissolved in hot or cold wax and then used to paint. The naturalism of these works and the interest in realistically depicting a specific individual also stem from Greek conceptions of painting. The subjects of the majority of the Fayum Portraits are styled and clothed according to contemporary Roman fashions, most likely those made popular by the current ruling imperial family. The portrait of the bearded man, for example, is reminiscent of images of the emperor Hadrian (r. 117–138 CE), who popularized the fashion of wearing a thick beard as symbol of his philhellenism.  In their function, these mummy portraits are entirely Egyptian and reflect religious traditions surrounding the preservation of the body of the deceased that span back thousands of years. In form, these works are uniquely multicultural and display the intersection of Roman and provincial customs.

This text was prepared by Mellon Special Projects Intern Amanda Manker.

Not on view

Related exhibitions

Faces of Antiquity: Portraiture of the Roman Empire
Center and Periphery: Cultural Hybridity in the Funerary Arts of the Roman Provinces

Suggested online resources

Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt  -exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: http://www.metmuseum.org/special/se_event.asp?OccurrenceId={83B5C9F5-AD4E-11D3-936B-00902786BF44}

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: “Egypt, 1–500 A.D.”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=05®ion=afe (October 2000)

Further reading

Berger, Jacques-Edouard.  L’Oeil et L’Eternitie: portraits romains d’Egypte (Paudex, Switzerland: Editions de Fontainemore, 1977), 216.

Doxiadis, Euphrosyne. The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1995.

Parlasca, Klaus. Mumienportrats und Verwandte Denkmaler (Weisbaden, Germany: Steiner, 1966), 270.

Parlasca, Klaus. Ritratti di Mummie. Reportorio d’Arte dell’Egitto Greco-Romano, Serie B, ed. Achille Adriani, 1 (Palermo, Italy: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1969).

Parlasca, Klaus. Ritratti di Mummie. Reportorio d’Arte dell’Egitto Greco-Romano, Serie B, ed. Achille Adriani, 3 (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1980).

Peck, William H. Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt, exh. cat. (Detroit: The Detroit Institute of Arts, 1967), 36.

Scott, Gerry D. III.  Ancient Egyptian Art at Yale, 1st, exh. cat. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 1986), 176–77, no. 98B, ill.

Walker, Susan, M L. Bierbrier, Paul Roberts, and John H. Taylor. Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt. London: Published for the Trustees of the British Museum by the British Museum Press, 1997.

Zaloscer, Hilde. Porträts aus dem Wüstensand (Vienna: A. Schroll, 1961), 64.

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